Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Houston 46, North Texas 25

New quarterback? No problem! The Cougars got back to their winning ways by upsetting North Texas (yes, the Mean Green were favored) in Denton, notching their first win against an FBS opponent for the season and emphatically answering questions as to the team's "will to fight" after starting quarterback D'Eriq King opted to redshirt for the rest of the 2019 season.

The Good: With King no longer behind center, it was up to second-string quarterback Clayton Tune to show that he could direct the offense. He performed well, completing 16 of 20 pass attempts for 124 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 100 yards. Patrick Carr ran for another 139 yards and three scores. The UH defense, meanwhile, held UNT's rushing attack to less than 100 yards on the evening.

It was a great night for UH special teams, as they scored touchdowns on a kick return (Marquez Stevenson, 82 yards) and a punt return (Bryson Smith, 60 yards) - the first time since October 1973 that the Coogs had two such returns for touchdowns in the same game.

The Bad: The Cougars’ pass defense continued to struggle, as UNT quarterback Mason Fine lit them up for 353 yards and two touchdowns. UNT actually outgained the Coogs in this game, 456 yards to 359 (however, these totals do not include kick return yards).

When the UH secondary wasn't covering poorly, they were tackling poorly. UNT’s final touchdown occurred because Cougar safety Deontay Anderson hit UNT wide receiver Jason Pirtle but failed to wrap him up, allowing Pirtle to bounce off of him and walk into the endzone.

The Cougar defense’s 21-game streak of recording at least one turnover also came to an end, as neither team turned the ball over in this game.

The Beautiful: the Green Brigade and the Spirit of Houston joined together at halftime for this wonderful rendition of America the Beautiful:

The announced attendance of 30,123 was an Apogee Stadium record.

What It Means: This was a much-needed win for the Cougars, and Clayton Tune showed that he is capable of running Dana Holgorsen's offense for the remainder of the season. UH now gets a much-needed week off before hosting Cincinnati on October 12.

The all-time series between Houston and North Texas is now tied at seven games apiece. The next edition of the Mean Green Cougar Red Bowl will occur at TDECU Stadium next year.

Puerto Vallarta video

I put together a short (under six minute) video of last summer's trip to Puerto Vallarta, featuring the beach view from our timeshare, a Pacific sunset, dive-bombing pelicans, a trip to Las Caletas, and a view of the city from a party boat. Enjoy!

I'm also working on a video for the 2018 Eurotrip and will hopefully have that up soon.

I was that idiot

You know the people who try to drive during extreme weather events and then get stuck in their cars due to rising floodwaters? The people we laugh at when we see them on the news? "Why did that idiot try to drive in this rainstorm? Doesn't he know that this city's roads flood during heavy rains!?"

Well, a couple of Thursdays ago, during the deluge caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda, I was that idiot.

That morning I went to TxDOT's district headquarters for a meeting. I wasn't particularly concerned about the weather at that point - the deluge forecast for the previous day had never materialized, and it was not raining at all during my trip to the meeting. I noticed on the radar that there was a rain band sagging southward through the city but I didn't think too much of it at the time. My hope was that it would pass through fairly quickly while I was at the meeting and clear out before I made my way back to the office. I wanted to get back there and wrap up a few things as quickly as I could, because Corinne and I were scheduled to fly to New Orleans that afternoon.

It wasn't too long before the storms arrived. The lights in the meeting room flickered with every lighting strike, and the windows rattled with the thunder. The guy from METRO sitting next to me received an alert on his phone that his agency had just suspended all bus and rail service. I received a text from Southwest Airlines informing me that my flight had been delayed one hour. The radar app on my phone showed ominous hues of orange and red. Things weren't looking good.

By the time the meeting had ended, the city was facing a serious flooding situation. However, my desire to get back to my office and try to make my flight overrode what should have been common sense. The radar indicated that things might be about to clear up; if I stay off the below-grade freeways and keep to major surface streets, I reasoned to myself, I should be able to make to back to the office.

So I (stupidly) headed down Washington Avenue towards Shepherd, and then made my way onto Kirby. Water was high in places, and the downpour was torrential, but people were slowly making their way through. It wasn't until I turned off of Kirby onto West Alabama that I began to get concerned: the water had gotten so high that only the very middle of the street was passable, and the rainfall was so heavy I could hardly see in front of me (the clearing that I thought I saw on my phone's radar app had, needless to say, never materialized). The further I drove, the deeper into the water I found myself. The water got to be so high that it was reaching the belts on my car's engine, causing them to squeal. It was only a matter of time before the water would cause my engine to stall out completely; it was at that point, coincidentally, that Southwest sent me a text informing me that my flight had been canceled altogether.

I was only a few blocks away from my office, but it was obvious I wasn't going to make it; I needed to find a place to stop and hopefully wait out the deluge. So I turned off of West Alabama and on to Buffalo Speedway, found a median opening at the street's highest point, parked and waited. I also took a couple of pictures:

The rain continued to come down, and the water continued to rise. I watched the curb of the median opening slowly disappear beneath the floodwater. Every time a truck or other large vehicle with enough clearance to navigate the floodwaters would drive by, it would send a wave of water crashing into my car, causing it to feel like it was about to float away. I continued to nervously watch my phone's radar app, and actually began to give thought to abandoning the car and sloshing my way in the rain and floodwater towards higher ground, such as a nearby building or parking garage.

Why didn't I just stay at TxDOT's office? I would have been high and dry there. Like I said, I was that idiot.

Thankfully, the rain began to let up, and I took a short video documenting my stupidity:

Buffalo Speedway drained relatively quickly once the rain stopped; before too long I was able to continue on to my office with no problem whatsoever. But still: I never should have put myself in that position to begin with. It just wasn't worth it.

Of course, as I mentioned in my previous post, our trip to New Orleans never happened. Southwest let us reschedule for later this month.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Houston 31, Tulane 38

Good thing that the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda caused my flight to New Orleans to be canceled so I didn't have to witness this travesty in person. It was hard enough to have to watch on TV.

The Good: The Coogs scored on the first play from scrimmage and jumped out to a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter. D'Eriq King threw for 229 yards and two touchdown passes, while the Cougar ground attack accounted for 304 yards and two more touchdowns on the evening. The UH defense recovered a Tulane fumble, making it 21 games in a row - the longest active streak in FBS - that the Cougars have recorded a turnover.

The Bad: In what has become a pattern for the Coogs this season, Houston was completely impotent in the second half. The Green Wave scored 24 unanswered points to take the lead, 28-31, midway through the fourth. During that stretch the Cougars missed two field goals and punted three times.  The Cougars finally made a field goal of their own to tie the game with 21 seconds left. It looked like things were headed to overtime, but then this happened:

It was a stunning and bitter way to lose, but let's face it: after blowing a 21-point lead, the Cougars honestly had no business winning that game at all.

The Ugly: Third Quarters. As Ryan explains, ugly is the only description. Through four games the Cougars have scored a total of 10 points - and given up 42 - during the third quarter. Something is horribly wrong in the locker room if the team consistently comes out flat like this.

What It Means: The Cougars are now 1-3 on the season and at this point are probably looking at a losing record. This is perhaps one of the reasons quarterback D'Eriq King made a stunning announcement earlier this week that he has decided to take advantage of the NCAA's new redshirt rules and sit out the remainder of the 2019 season. Wide receiver Keith Corbin made a similar announcement.

Both players claim that they have no plans to transfer and will return to the team in 2020; I honestly have a hard time believing that. Coach Dana Holgorsen, for his part, claims that these developments do not mean that the Cougars are giving up on the 2019 season. However, given everything else that is wrong with this team right now, it's hard to believe that this team can be even remotely competitive without its main offensive weapon.

At the very least, the brutal Sunday-Saturday-Friday-Thursday stretch of six-day weeks is over (thanks alot, ESPN!). Next up for the Coogs is a trip to Denton for the 2019 Edition of the Mean Green Cougar Red Bowl.

The best Saturday Night Live skits

The 45th season of Saturday Night Live starts this weekend (alas, it will not include Leslie Jones).

A few weeks ago put up this slideshow (which was republished by the Houston Chronicle's website, because the dying newspaper relies on slideshows to inflate its pageview count) that lists fifty of the greatest Saturday Night Live skits in the 44-year history of the late-night comedy show. Stacker identifies these sketches as those "that have had the largest cultural comedic impact, those that bring humor to more serious social issues, and political satire at its finest. Added to that are skits that generated Emmy awards for the actors, and several funny pieces that have become a historic part of our social fabric."

To be fair, most of the "sketches" listed in this slideshow are actually recurring characters, but a lot of the classics are nevertheless acknowledged: the Coneheads, Gumby, Buckwheat, Wayne's World, the Church Lady, the Chippendales Audition, Schweddy BallsDick in A Box, More Cowbell, and, of course, Matt Foley.

But there are a handful of great SNL sketches missing from this list - wither Stuart Smalley's Affirmations or the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer? - including several that I've always thought to be among SNL's best (a handful of these skits do appear on other greatest SNL skits lists). Here are some of my favorites:

White Like Me (1984): Eddie Murphy discovers what it is like to be white in this take on race relations that is just as hilarious - and, sadly, relevant - today as it was back in 1984.

President Reagan, Mastermind (1986): At the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, Phil Hartman plays a Ronald Reagan who knew a lot more than he led on to the public.

Happy Fun Ball (1991): This long list of dangerous side effects of an apparently innocuous toy is reminiscent of your standard pharmaceutical commercial listing the myriad side effects, which I guess is the point. As far as I we know, Happy Fun Ball is still legal in 16 states!

Schiller Visions: Hidden Camera Commercials (1991): What happens when you inform somebody that the coffee they've been drinking is made from freeze-dried crystals, rather than freshly ground, and record their reaction on hidden camera? Most people might be good-natured about it, but Chris Farley's character was not.

Wake Up and Smile (1995): The teleprompter malfunctions, and a pair of blow-dried morning talk show hosts quickly lose their bearings. This TV studio - meets - Lord of The Flies sketch is Will Farrell at his best.

Neurotology (2015): This pitch-perfect parody of a 1990 promotional video by a certain religious organization founded by a science fiction writer that shall not be named (I don't want to get sued) came out right after HBO aired a documentary about said religious organization.

Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks (2016): This one is relatively recent, which is why it might not appear on many lists. As the 2016 presidential election tossed America's racial tensions into the foreground, a MAGA-hat-wearing blue collar white guy discovers that has a lot in common with black people. Maybe race doesn't divide us as much as economic status unites us.

What are some of your all-time favorite sketches from Saturday Night Live?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Houston 24, #20 Washington State 31

The Battle of the Cougars turned out to be surprisingly close, but the end result is still the Coogs' second loss of the season.

The Good: The first half. Houston led at halftime, 14-7, thanks to a suffocating run defense that held Washington State to ten rushing yards (Washington State gained only 49 rushing yards the entire game) and an amazing Gleson Sprewell interception in the endzone late in the first half that kept Wazzu from tying the game just before halftime. D'Eriq King connected with Marquez Stevenson on a 13-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter.

The Bad: The second half. The local Cougars were held scoreless in the third quarter while the Pullman Cougars found the endzone twice to retake the lead for good. UH simply didn't have an answer for WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon, who ended the night 36 of 48 with 440 yards and three touchdowns. Houston also fumbled the ball twice.

D'Eriq King's passing struggles continue, as he was 13 of 24 for only 170 yards and one TD. King did score two rushing touchdowns, including one late in the game that gave the Coogs a faint ray of hope. WSU, however, was then able to run out the clock for the win.

The Ugly: Penalties. There were more flags on the NRG Stadium field than at UN's headquarters in New York. The refs really didn't let either team get into a rhythm and the two teams combined for 19 penalties. Washington State was actually called for more fouls, but the Pac-12 officiating crew certainly did Houston no favors. A holding call away from the play negated what would have been a 72-yard touchdown run by D'Eriq King in the third quarter, a questionable spot on third town led to the end of what was a promising UH drive, and what looked to be a clear targeting call was overturned.

This game at NRG Stadium was technically a "home" game for Houston, but it was hard to tell given the Washington State commercials throughout the game, the WSU fans who ended up with better seats than UH fans, and the announcer that seemed more excited whenever Wazzu got a first down than when UH did. The Friday night time slot was stupid, and don't get me started on the pre-game honor ceremony that featured former Texas AD DeLoss Dodds, who historically has been one of UH's biggest antagonists. What would have been a great game experience at TDECU turned into a poor, if not downright insulting, one at NRG.

Ryan Monceaux and Brad Towns explain in this podcast why the UH Athletics Department needs to stop farming out the program's marquee home games to NRG Stadium for the benefit of a game whose title sponsor is a multilevel marketing outfit. The only teams Houston should agree to play at NRG are Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, Oklahoma or Alabama. Every other game needs to be played on campus at TDECU, i.e. the stadium we built for a reason.

What It Means: For the second time this season, the Cougars performed admirably against a ranked Power Five school. Just a fewer mistakes here or there, and the Coogs might have actually won this one. Hopefully the team learns from this tough experience as they continue to rebuild under the new coaching staff.

Things get no easier for Houston, as they travel to New Orleans to play their conference opener against a solid Tulane team on Thursday night.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Houston 37, Prairie View 17

The Coogs notch their first win of the season, albeit in underwhelming fashion.

The Good: The Coogs jumped out to a quick lead and led 34-3 midway through the second quarter. Running backs had a productive evening, with Kyle Porter carrying 19 times for 120 yards and a touchdown, and Chandler Smith adding another 90 yards. The Cougar defense held Prairie View to 5 of 16 on third-down conversions and came away with its first interception on the season.

Also, Prairie View brought their band:

The Bad: Once the Coogs got out to that 34-4 lead, they shut things down. From that point on they were actually outscored by Prairie View, 3-14.

D'Eriq King didn't have his best game; he looked very tentative at times and missed open receivers on multiple occasions. He finished with a rather pedestrian 15 of 26 for 139 yards and one touchdown (he also ran for a score). However, he was also sacked four times and threw his first pick of the season.

Houston's pass defense continues to be an area of concern. Prairie View racked up 248 yards through the air - and that was in spite of them completing less than half of their pass attempts.

The Ugly: Junior transfer DL Olivier Charles-Pierre doesn't appear on the stat sheet, but he participated in one play. On 3rd and 14 from the Prairie View 4, he was flagged for tackling the Panther quarterback well after the play was whistled dead. This gave Prairie View a fresh set of downs and moved them out of the shadow of their own endzone. There's simply no excuse for bonehead penalties like that.

What It Means: Normally, the fact that the Coogs failed to beat an FCS opponent by 40 or 50 points would be a concern. The fact that the Coogs didn't may be because that Dana Holgorsen and his staff purposely slowed things down in the second half (as the Cougars are playing four games in 19 days - thanks, ESPN!). But if the pass defense does not improve, and if D'Eriq King continues to struggle, UH is looking at a rough season ahead.

They'll get tested at NRG Stadium on Friday the 13th as Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars come to town.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Houston 31, #4 Oklahoma 49

About what I expected. At least the Coogs covered the spread.

The Good: Houston QB D'Eriq King came back from last year's injury to account for 270 total yards and three touchdowns, and Mulbah Car ran the ball for 76 yards and a TD, all in the second half. The UH defense recovered two Sooner fumbles (the Coogs had no fumbles of their own) and the team never gave up despite playing from behind the entire game; in fact, late in the game and down by 11, they even went for an onside kick (alas, it didn't work and led led to the Sooners' final score).

The Bad: The Cougars started out very slow, punting on their first four possessions and not finding the endzone until Oklahoma was up by 21 points. D'Eriq King improved as the game progressed, but he still ended the night with a rather mediocre completion rate of 14 for 27 and was sacked twice.  The UH defense picked up where it left off last season - being horrible - and allowed new Oklahoma (and former Alabama) QB Jalen Hurts to light them up for 332 passing yards (he was 20 of 23 with 3 TDs) and 176 rushing yards (and another three touchdowns). The Sooners ended the game with 686 total yards of offense and averaged 11.6 yards per play.

The Ugly: I repeat. 11.6 yards per play. That's horrendous. The UH defense was a mess of missed tackles, out-of-position players and blown coverages. This was disappointing to see, given the raised expectations of a new coaching staff.

The Sooners had their share of opening-day mishaps, too. Oklahoma missed two field goals and committed some bone-headed penalties that extended UH drives.

What it Means: Don't try to take away too much from this one. This was a "trial-by-fire" game on the road against a team with vastly superior talent. The Cougars have a lot of work to do, especially on defense, and a lot of tough games coming up, but this opponent was by far their hardest.

Ryan Monceaux gives the Coogs (mostly bad) grades for this game, while head coach Dana Holgerson sees the game as a learning experience.

Next up for Houston is their first home game of the year, as they host Prairie View.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Puerto Vallarta 2019: Pictures, Dining Guide Update, and Timeshares

The summer of 2019 is at its end, which means it’s time to take a break from all my posts about 2018's summer vacation trip to write something about this summer’s vacation trip: Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta (which itself is located in the Jalisco state, although a lot of the newer resort development is occurring in the Nayarit state directly to the north) is my favorite Mexican vacation spot, which makes it somewhat surprising that this was my first trip there in over a decade.

First, Some Pictures:

The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe features a wrought-iron crown atop its bell tower. It is located in the center of the city; it is an easily-recognizable landmark as well as a symbol of Puerto Vallarta.

Another symbol of Puerto Vallarta is the Seahorse Monument, or "El Caballito," located along the seawall. The painted letters are a more recent addition.

A view of the water from the Puerto Vallarta seawall, or "Malecón." Puerto Vallarta sits at the eastern end of Banderas Bay, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. That means the sunsets are awesome.

A view of Puerto Vallarta's hillsides from our waterfront timeshare. In addition to being a resort, Puerto Vallarta is also a top retirement destination. Some of those properties on the hills sell to American expats at rather substantial prices.

A view of Puerto Vallarta from the sea, featuring the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the right. Puerto Vallarta occupies a relatively narrow bit of land between the sea and the mountains, and the dramatic topography is part of the city's charm.

As I said in a previous picture, Puerto Vallarta's location on the east end of Banderas Bay means that it is the perfect Pacific sunset-watching locale. I took this picture from the balcony of my timeshare, and I waited until the sailboat was in the perfect spot. Sometimes I'm a decent photographer.

Another view of Puerto Vallarta from the sea. The construction of high-rise hotels and timeshares continues apace, especially on the north side of the city.

While Corinne, Kirby and I were in Vallarta, we spent the week eating, drinking, sleeping, soaking in the pool, sitting on the beach, and looking at sunsets. In other words, we had an ideal vacation.

Updated Puerto Vallarta Dining Guide:
Back in 2007, I wrote about my impressions of Puerto Vallarta restaurants that I enjoyed (or thought were overrated). Some of the restaurants I listed in that post are gone, others have moved, others have changed names. I've decided to update and distill my Puerto Vallarta restaurant list to five establishments that have stood the test of time (I’ve eaten at each of them at least twice) and are, in my opinion, among the most reliable and highest-quality dining experiences in Puerto Vallarta. This is not to say that any of these five places are the "best" restaurants in PVR, but you can't go wrong by eating at any of them.
Rio Grande (Av. Mexico 1175): They serve all kinds of dishes here, but seafood is their specialty (especially red snapper!). Good service and reasonable prices.
La Bodguita del Medio (Paseo Díaz Ordaz 858): The Puerto Vallarta location of this Havana-inspired restaurant has been a local fixture for many years. They have all your Cuban favorites: sandwiches, pork, rice, black beans, plantains and - yes - amazing mojitos. They have live music in the evening, so it can get loud. They sell cuban cigars, too.
The Pancake House (Basilo Badillo 289): This place was called Memo’s Pancake House at one point. It’s reverted to a more generic name, but it's just a good as I remembered. You’re going to have trouble finishing the stacks of big, fluffy pancakes that come in a variety of preparations, such as the “Black Forest” pancakes with chocolate and strawberries topped with whipped cream. They also have waffles, omelets, and Mexican breakfast specialties such as heuvos rancheros, huevos Mexicana, or Chilaquiles. Open until 2 pm.
El Andariego (Av. Mexico 1358): Good food, good service, and you get to sample their in-house tequila. What's not to like? Their murals are pretty cool, too.
The Blue Shrimp (Olas Altas 336): Since my last trip, this establishment has moved to a new location along the beachfront in the Zona Romantica (they've also opened a second location in Nueva Vallarta). They still offer shrimp prepared a variety of ways, as well as excellent cocktails and appetizers. This is not the cheapest place to eat in town, but you will not leave hungry.
Honorable Mention: pretty much any street taco stand. You obviously can’t go wrong if you eat where the locals eat, and there's just nothing better than a plate of authentic tacos al pastor. Two of my favorites are Tacos el Punto (Av. Mexico 1225) and El Carboncito (Calle Honduras 127); these are around the corner from each other and I'm familiar with them because they are close to my timeshare. Just be aware that many of these places don’t speak much English or accept anything other than cash.
I’ve also heard good things about El Barracuda, but I didn’t get a chance to eat there this time around (which is a shame because it was literally just down the street from my small timeshare). Guess that just means that I’ll go back.
Be aware that many restaurants will have people out in front of them, wielding menus and trying to get you to eat there as you walk by with the promise of a special drink or free appetizer. This practice can be annoying, but does not necessarily suggest anything about the quality of the restaurant (e.g. "that place is so bad that they have to beg people to eat there!"). It is simply a function of intense competition for tourist pesos in a city with a lot of restaurants. (Truth be told, I am convinced that you really have to try to find bad food in Puerto Vallarta.)

This practice is especially prevalent along the Malecón (which they improved since the last time I was there; what used to be a busy street along the waterfront is now a wide pedestrian promenade). The guy in front of El Jardin de Pancho Villa (Paseo Díaz Ordaz 732) discovered we were from Texas (he said he grew up in east Austin) and harangued us every day until we finally relented and ate there. It turned out to be a good place to stop for nachos and margaritas, which were pretty strong for their price. However, there was another establishment further down the seawall (towards the church and town square) that we ate at after being given a voucher for a free appetizer. The food was decent, but I can’t recommend this place because a so-called "tour operator" approached our table several times over the course of our lunch. I have a huge problem with restaurants that allow timeshare reps to disturb their customers while they are eating. Speaking of which...


As I've previously explained, timeshares are a big deal in Puerto Vallarta. This is not necessarily a bad thing - the reason my family and I have cumulatively spent so much time in Puerto Vallarta is because of the three timeshare properties World InternationalVacation Club operates in the city. Puerto Vallarta relies on tourism, and timeshares are an important part of that industry. That being said, for a while the timeshare wranglers were as annoying as they were ubiquitous; it was impossible to walk down the sidewalk without being accosted by multiple people aggressively offering you "free" tours or dinner cruises or tequila or other gifts: all you had to do to get them was subject yourself to an hours-long, high-pressure sales pitch aimed at getting you to spend tens of thousands of dollars on unit-week at a local resort.
On this trip, however, the aforementioned encounter at the restaurant was one of the more egregious timeshare pitches I experienced. Maybe it’s simply because I’m more wary of the timeshare wranglers and go out of my way to avoid them, or maybe it's because the timeshare industry has generally evolved, but there just didn’t seem to be as much "in-your-face" timeshare-pitch activity this time around. There were fewer wranglers manning kiosks along Avenida Mexico or the seawall approaching tourists as they walked by. There also didn’t seem to be as many tequila shops offering “free” bottles of tequila. In fact, there were plenty of establishments with signs saying “NO TIMESHARE” at their entrances, suggesting an awareness that tourists had become weary of these gimmicks.
To be sure, there is still the “timeshare gauntlet” at Puerto Vallarta’s airport. This is a room between the customs area and the ground transportation/exit area that arriving passengers are forced to walk through as they leave the terminal and where timeshare wranglers aggressively pitch “free” hotel transportation to incoming passengers. I find it rather obnoxious that something like this was designed into an airport's physical layout, but it is what it is. The best way to deal with the gauntlet is to walk with your baggage as quickly as possible, make no eye contact, and politely say “no thank you” to the people asking which hotel you’re staying at.

This particular trip was my first experience using Southwest's international services out of Hobby. I have no complaints about that service - Southwest isn't fancy, but it is reliable - or customs at Hobby. My only gripe is the customs and immigrations setup at Puerto Vallarta's airport: it is very slow, and in combination with the timeshare gauntlet, makes the airport an exasperating experience.

But Puerto Vallarta itself is worth it. So I'll keep going back.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

2019 Houston Cougar Football Preview

One week from tonight, another Houston Cougar football season begins. What can we expect?

Looking Back: When we last left the Cougars, they had just gotten utterly obliterated by Army, 14-70, in the Armed Forces bowl. The historically embarrassing loss - the Coogs' fourth out of the last five games of the seasons - subsequently resulted in a coaching change for the program, as Major Applewhite was fired and Dana Holgerson hired away from West Virginia to become Houston's newest head coach.

The Big Story for 2019: See above. The Cougars have a new head coach, one which they poached from a so-called "Power Five" school. Holgerson has a history at Houston, having previously been offensive coordinator here before serving as head coach for the Mountaineers.

Reasons for Optimism: A highly-qualified new coaching staff aside, the Coogs return a ton of talent of offense. Quarterback D'Eriq King is healthy again and hopes to top his 3,000 yard, 36-touchdown passing performance of a year ago. He has plenty of targets; most of last season's receiving corps returns, including Marquez Stevenson (who caught 75 passes for 1,019 yards and nine TDs last season) and Keith Corbin (who caught 40). King will also do his part on the ground, although veteran running backs Patrick Carr and Mulbah Car should be getting a fair amount of carries as well. Provided the offensive line can do its part and there are no major injuries (always a concern), the Coogs have the skill players to be one of the best offenses in the country.

Some talent also returns on the defensive side of the ball: defensive end Isiah Chambers returns from a knee injury that prematurely ended his season, and linebackers Leroy Godrey and David Anenih return as well. Gleson Sprewell and Deontay Anderson, who both had busy seasons at safety last year, also return.

Reasons for Pessimism: Those players aside, the fact is that last year's defense was one of the worst in the nation and statistically the worst in program history. Much of what little talent it did possess from last season - eight starters, including Ed Oliver and Austin Robinson - has departed. While the defense will receive an influx of JUCO and transfer talent, and while new defensive coordinator Dan Cauthen is an exponential upgrade over the incompetent charlatan that was Mike D'Onofrio, it's likely going to take more to make up for last season's disaster. This is especially true for the defensive line and at cornerback. Depth is an issue across the board.

As for as much skill is on the offensive side of the ball, the fact is that the Coogs are one D'Eriq King injury away from utter devastation. Will an offensive line that had major issues last year, culminating in giving up ten sacks in the bowl game to Army, be able to protect him?

There's also the schedule: not only is it much tougher overall than last season's, but it also starts off in brutal fashion. The Coogs play four games in nineteen days, including a road game against #4 Oklahoma and a not-quite-home game against #23 Washington State. There are back-to-back roadies against an improving Tulane team and a North Texas program that could win C-USA this season. Houston plays #17 Central Florida on the road, and has extremely tough home contests against Cincinnati and Memphis.

What the Humans Think: At least a few coaches cast ballots for the Coogs in the USA Today preseason poll; they received three votes. The AP sportswriters weren't as generous, although the AAC sportswriters picked the Coogs to finish second in the West Division, behind Memphis.

CBS Sports ranks the Cougars #37 to start the season; their sportswriters all have the Coogs finishing either first or second in the AAC West division and a couple of them even think they'll be conference champions. Althon ranks the Coogs #55 to start the season and expects them to complete the season with an 8-4 record (they also think that D'Eriq King is among the top ten best starting quarterbacks in the country). College Football News, likewise, ranks UH #55 to begin the season and is especially bullish with a prediction of a ten-win campaign - and a AAC West title - for 2019. Sports Illustrated actually thinks the Houston is a Group of Five team that could crack the top ten this fall.

SBNation, on the other hand, expects the Cougars to notch a 6-6 season. The SWC Roundup, whose comprehensive preview is worth reading in full, foresees a 7-5 season for UH. Special props to them for this gem about last year's defense:
The defense, with a slew of NFL caliber athletes, including a generational top ten pick, couldn’t squash a grape. We can now officially coin a new phrase in our lexicon, “D’Onofrio’d” - to be so Cottonelle soft that you draw defeat from the warm bosom of victory. Let us use it in a sentence: “Remember that time Houston put 49 on Temple but got D’Onofrio’d by 10?” 
What the Computers Think: ESPN's FPI puts no faith in the Cougars; its probabilistic forecast indicates a 4-8 record for UH. Massey's probabilities are only slightly better, suggesting a 6-6 season. Sagarin's preseason rankings suggest an 8-4 campaign when opponent rankings and home field advantage are taken into account, while Congrove expects the Cougars to go 5-7 in 2019.

What I think: While Dana Holgerson is obviously an upgrade over the hapless Major Applewhite, it's going to take a lot more than a coaching change for the Cougars to become competitive again. Espeically considering just how awful they were on defense last season. Combine that with a brutal schedule, and I think the Coogs are going to take a step backwards, at least in the win-loss column, this fall.

They will be absolutely destroyed by a revenge-minded Oklahoma on the road (hopefully the Coogs will get out of Norman without significant injuries) and be bested by Washington State at NRG. They will lose at least one of their back-to-back road games against Tulane and North Texas. They will lose on the road to UCF and at home to Memphis. The end result will be a 6-6 season for the Cougars.

National pundits who criticized Applewhite's firing and Holgerson's hiring will no doubt squeal with glee at such as result, but they'll also be missing the point. Dana Holgerson has a tough rebuilding job ahead of him against a much tougher schedule than the Coogs have played in the recent past. Improvement will not be measured in the win-loss column as it will through other metrics; namely, do the players and positions generally show improvement as the season progresses, are the players being motivated and coached to the best of their abilities, and (most importantly) are the Coogs able to beat the teams they are supposed to beat? If the answer to these questions at the end of the season is "yes," then it will have been a success regardless of the number of wins, and there will be much reason for optimism for the program going forward.

Finally, 2019 will mark the 150th anniversary of the College game. Dennis Dodd reflects on this milestone:
The game turns 150 this year at the height of its popularity. Consider that college football started in the Ulysses S. Grant administration. It didn't recognize a formal champion for 67 years (1936, the beginning of the wire service era). It didn't decide a champion on the field until 62 years after that (1998, the BCS era). It has survived World Wars, scandals and scores of deaths that have put the game itself in peril. In 1869, Clemson as a city wouldn't exist for another 20 years. Bear Bryant wouldn't be born for another 44 years. A little Midwest school named Notre Dame had just turned 27. Consider that -- in the history of officially recognized national championships -- only 30 teams have won it all. Since 1998, only 16 teams have played for a championship. Yes, it's an exclusive club -- this sport -- but we still love watching every darn minute.
I plan to celebrate and enjoy every moment of my favorite sport's 150th birthday. Go Coogs!